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Jason Olson, Deseret Morning News
A warning sign that reads "Thieves want your mail!" is posted on a cluster mailbox in West Valley City.

Peering through the window of a stolen cargo van, Centerville police saw a woman sleeping on the floor. The two officers drew their guns and opened the sliding door.

The woman sat upright, raised her hands above her head and did not move as the officers commanded.

A search of the van that January morning yielded a printer, forged and blank checks, stolen Social Security and health-care cards, bank statements and stacks of mail.

Officer Rob Kirkham also detected the distinct odor of methamphetamine. The 36-year-old woman later told police she had been up for three days on a meth bender.

Meth addiction and mail theft fit neatly together.

"It just goes hand in hand," Utah postal inspector Randy Tuckett said.

The U.S. Postal Inspection Service is charged with protecting the nation's mail. It investigates identity theft and mail theft or what criminals call "mailboxing" or "red flagging." There are 10 agents in Utah.

"We do keep ourselves busy," Tuckett said, adding several inspectors work nothing but mail theft. "(If) you see an increase in methamphetamine abuse, you see an increase in mail theft."

Meth addiction has reached epidemic proportions in Utah. It is the fastest growing illicit drug in the state, outpacing marijuana. More than a quarter of men and nearly 40 percent of women in treatment programs are meth abusers.

If your mail has been stolen, chances are the thief was a meth addict, or a "tweaker" as they often refer to themselves.

The Postal Inspection Service financial crimes database lists 96 mailbox "attacks" in Utah in the past two years. The data include neighborhood cluster boxes, apartment panel boxes, blue collection boxes and post office boxes. Curbside mailboxes are not included, and postal inspectors have no idea how much mail is stolen from them.

Though postal inspectors don't keep track, Tuckett estimates the thieves are meth addicts "a good 80 percent to 90 percent of the time."

Mail theft is a federal offense that carries a two-year minimum mandatory prison term.

Kirk Torgensen, who heads the Utah attorney general's identity fraud unit, said there's "absolutely no doubt" that Utah's meth problem is a major cause of mail theft.

Stolen mail often results in stolen identity.

"We see a lot of meth heads involved in this identity theft stuff," he said. "We know that when they steal mail, they're doing it to use someone's identity."

People high on meth can stay awake and focused on repetitive tasks for days, making them adept at stealing from mailboxes and altering checks and documents. Using common solvents like acetone, mail snatchers "wash" and rewrite checks to themselves for hundreds or even thousands of dollars. They have no problem spending hours perfecting a watermark or re-arranging account numbers.

"What the bad guys have found out is that identity theft is a much easier way to get money for their drugs," Torgensen said. "It's not really dangerous."

Hannah, a recovering meth addict, said mail and identity theft was "something to tweak on."

"When you get high, you have nothing to do but fidget. While you fidget, you might as well make some money."

Hannah, 27, used to run around with a guy who called himself "The Fraud God." He often enlisted other meth addicts to steal mail in exchange for drugs, groceries or car and utilities payments.

"He used young mothers who were desperate to stay high and stay afloat," she said.

Danielle, a 22-year-old recovering meth addict, figures she stole from hundreds of mailboxes, often on Salt Lake City's affluent east side "just because people had more money."

At first she only worked at night, but as her addiction deepened, she followed the mail truck around during the day. Within two hours, Danielle said, she could hitchhike to a neighborhood, steal checks, make a fake ID and get money for drugs.

"It all stemmed from getting in the mailbox and getting things," she said.

The Tooele County Major Crimes Task Force broke up a large theft ring in February, finding personal information on hundreds of Tooele and Salt Lake County residents in a 41-year-old Tooele man's home. Officers seized printers, scanners and computers believed to be used to create fake identities.

Investigators suspect some of the information was obtained through mail theft. They also found methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia.

The Secret Service office in Salt Lake City took over the case, but spokesman Glen Passey said he couldn't comment on it.

Businesses and homes are targets, though residential areas are more vulnerable.

Mail thieves often will break into several neighborhood cluster boxes or collection boxes at a time. Multiple thefts recently occurred in Midvale and Salt Lake City. In 2003, 14 collection boxes were hit in a Murray ZIP code in one night.

"The trend is to want to go after a box that has a lot of mail in it," Tuckett said.

Curbside mailboxes are easy marks, especially when the red flag is up. "It only takes two seconds to open up a mailbox to see if there's mail inside," Torgensen said.

"A red flag up on your mailbox is just an invitation for someone to steal your checks," said Ron Matekel, Tooele County chief deputy sheriff.

Several people in the attorney general's identity fraud unit no longer have mail delivered to their home because of what they've seen in their work, Torgensen said. They now use post office boxes.

But not even those are safe. Thieves have been bold enough to pry open safety deposit boxes in post offices. That led to the Postal Service locking at night all but five branches around the valley, Tuckett said. Surveillance cameras monitor those offices.

Torgensen himself was a victim of mail theft. He received a telephone call a couple of years ago from a postal inspector who told him, "I'm looking at your mail."

Some letters destined for the Torgensen home were among a batch of mail stolen from a postal truck. The thief turned out to be a drug addict.

"Nobody's immune. That's the hard part," he said. "You can do everything right and still be a victim."

E-mail: romboy@desnews.com